There are obvious reasons why Vladimir Putin would like the next occupant of the White House to be someone who questions whether America should give unconditional support to NATO allies. What, though, does Xi Jinping think of the prospect of a Donald Trump victory in November? Some people, including Trump advisor Peter Navarro, a business school professor at UC Irvine, my own university, take it for granted that Xi would root for a democratic victory: this would allow him, in their view, to deal with another “weak” administration, not finally face a “strong” one determined to protect American interests. This way of viewing the situation, though, is wrong headed. Recent reporting shows that Chinese public opinion about Trump runs the gamut from admiration to disdain, and it is impossible to say where Xi’s personal feelings rest along this spectrum. Still, for five reasons, the Republican National Convention would have made the Communist Party’s leader smile more often than frown:
It reduced the disparity between Chinese and American soft power reserves. One thing that frustrates Xi is the degree to which, when it comes to national image and cultural forms, America remains more widely admired than China in many places. The difference is not what it once was, due to some Chinese successes and American failures, but it remains significant. The relentless disparaging of the current state of the U.S. during RNC speeches, particularly Trump’s dystopian oration, was music to the ears of someone hoping, like Xi, to see global admiration for the United States lessen.
It helped normalize one-man rule. Xi is widely seen as concentrating more power in his own hands than any of his immediate predecessors. This approach has been criticized as a throwback to a bygone time, but Trump’s celebration of a one-man-can-do-it-all approach make it seem part of an international contemporary style.
Criticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trump has lashed out at TPP as a misguided Obama policy. Xi must have liked this, as this trade agreement among Pacific countries excludes the PRC. As James Millward pointed out in a recent exchange, Beijing has criticized it as an example of an unfair effort to hold China back, that is, as the sort of policy that an administration unjustly “tough” rather than supinely “weak” would be pushing.
Limited support for Allies. Trump’s comments on taking a case-by-case approach to deciding whether to defend other NATO members have, naturally, tended to be analyzed in terms of their implications for Moscow. This is a very hot topic in light of recent commentaries such as Paul Krugman’s New York Times op-ed on “Donald Trump, the Siberian Candidate,” which ask us to consider that Putin could not just be dreaming of a win by America’s developer turned demagogue but actively trying to increase the odds of that result. Still, Xi has his own reasons to think it would be nice if the next President thought that American obligations to other countries should always be subject to renegotiation, due to the tensions currently brewing that involve competing claims over maritime territories that pit Beijing against longtime U.S. allies such as the Philippines.
Distraction. Some recent China-related news stories that might have inspired a good deal of international outrage or at least concern in a different period have gotten more muted attention, due in part to intense coverage of the American elections. I am thinking of the new revelations regarding abducted Hong Kong booksellers that broke in June, commentaries on the first anniversary of the widespread crackdown on rights lawyers earlier this month, and Joshua Wong and two other youthful leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement being convicted of crimes relating to acts of civil disobedience last week.
All of these five issues involve more than just Trump. News of gun violence and enduring racism have diminished American soft power; democratic candidates as well as Trump have been criticizing TPP; Brexit, terrorism and the coup plus crackdown in Turkey have, along with the American election, made it hard for news about disturbing developments in Hong Kong to make headlines—or get more than a flicker of attention when they do; and so on.
Still, on balance, for Xi, the RNC was surely a welcome event with a welcome result. It concluded with the nomination, after all, of a man who has continually disparaged American journalists (music to the Chinese leader’s ears) and someone who recently referred to the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations as a “riot” after previously expressing praise for the tough measures used to crush them by Deng Xiaoping (a man Xi admires). China’s leader has been contending with a host of problems, ranging from a slowing economy to toxic pollution to bursts of protest relating to varied causes. Any hint that things are not going well and that people are dissatisfied is problematic for someone who has made realization of a “China Dream” of national revival his watchword and claims to speak for a populace whose lives are all steadily getting better and better. How nice for such a man, who has also given speeches warning China’s people to avoid falling into the trap of admiring the West, to have been able to listen to the long, dark speech Trump gave when accepting the nomination that presented today’s America as not as a land of dreams but a nightmare come to life.